Lessons on Decentralized Land Tenure Management and Property Rights Surveys

Guest commentary by Kent Elbow, Independent Land Tenure and Property Rights Specialist.

The second edition of the “Land Tenure Meetings of Bujumbura” (Rencontres Foncières de Bujumbura), sponsored by the Swiss Agency for International Development and Cooperation (SDC), took place in Bujumbura, Burundi June 3-5, 2014. The meetings examined land tenure policies in Burundi, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and were informed by Madagascar’s experience with decentralized land tenure management over the past decade, as well as case studies from Burkina Faso, Senegal and Central African Republic. The June 2014 meetings – building on a first set of meetings in 2011 – targeted two specific issues:

  • Use of parcel-by-parcel inventories as a means to identify and account for diverse types of (especially informal) land property rights; and
  • The challenge of achieving institutional, technical and financial sustainability of recent reforms (heretofore mostly sponsored by international donors) that support decentralized land tenure management.

Management of land tenure is particularly challenging in post-conflict countries like Burundi and Rwanda where intense demographic pressures are further complicated by the demands of returning refugees and internally displaced persons. Most land rights are not written down and exist only in the form of local customs and practices. SDC and other donors have sponsored various approaches and methodologies targeting identification and documentation of land rights based on parcel-by-parcel surveys.

Discussions during the Bujumbura meetings suggest that, at least at a general level, a standardized approach to conducting land rights surveys may be emerging. Among the standardized steps are: a communications campaign to inform rights-holders in the targeted zone; “participatory” parcel-by-parcel visits that include families and neighbors in addition to the presumed parcel “proprietor;” and a period during which declared rights may be challenged by competing claimants. While a primary parcel-level property rights holder often emerges from the surveys, identifying and recording customary access and use rights to land and resources remains a significant challenge. Women and migrants are among the user groups whose access and use rights are not always fully accounted for during the land rights formalization process. The meetings discussed that a possible response would be to accompany parcel-by-parcel land rights surveys with sociological studies that aim to document the full range of customary rights to use land and natural resources.

Another challenge to the survey approach to land and property rights identification is the sustainability of the institutions and tools that support them. For example, SDC and other donors have sponsored establishment in Burundi of decentralized Land Services in a significant number of Communes. Although the line of inquiry is somewhat preliminary at this point, the (partly theoretical and partly empirical) calculations examined during the Bujumbura meetings suggest that financial sustainability, while challenging, may be achievable.

In order to ensure a self-sustaining process for local land tenure management, Burundi’s communes need a critical mass of local participation and buy-in, and it is not yet clear that has been achieved. Among the questions debated in view of filling the possible gap between short-term local buy-in and longer-term sustainability is whether securitization of land tenure (via land certificates in the case of Burundi) should be treated as a public good to be subsidized by the central government, a private good to be purchased by land rights holders, or some combination of the two. While a definitive answer to this and other questions debated during the Bujumbura land tenure meetings remains elusive at this time, recent advances in decentralized land tenure management and conduct of property rights surveys in Burundi, Rwanda, Madagascar and elsewhere continue to appear extremely promising and worth pursuing. No further Bujumbura Land Tenure Meetings have been announced by SDC, but they would be useful in taking another step toward a more nuanced and detailed understanding of land tenure issues and appropriate policy responses currently being tested and expanded throughout Burundi and its closest neighbors.

Further Reading

  • Read more on land tenure in Burundi from USAID